Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us)

Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us)

by Cecelia Tichi

View All Available Formats & Editions

A gripping and inspiring book, Civic Passions examines innovative leadership in periods of crisis in American history. Starting from the late nineteenth century, when respected voices warned that America was on the brink of collapse, Cecelia Tichi explores the wisdom of practical visionaries who were confronted with a series of social, political, and


A gripping and inspiring book, Civic Passions examines innovative leadership in periods of crisis in American history. Starting from the late nineteenth century, when respected voices warned that America was on the brink of collapse, Cecelia Tichi explores the wisdom of practical visionaries who were confronted with a series of social, political, and financial upheavals that, in certain respects, seem eerily similar to modern times. The United States—then, as now—was riddled with political corruption, financial panics, social disruption, labor strife, and bourgeois inertia.

Drawing on a wealth of evocative personal accounts, biographies, and archival material, Tichi brings seven iconoclastic—and often overlooked—individuals from the Gilded Age back to life. We meet physician Alice Hamilton, theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, jurist Louis D. Brandeis, consumer advocate Florence Kelley, antilynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, economist John R. Commons, and child-welfare advocate Julia Lathrop. Bucking the status quo of the Gilded Age as well as middle-class complacency, these reformers tirelessly garnered popular support as they championed progressive solutions to seemingly intractable social problems.

Civic Passions is a provocative and powerfully written social history, a collection of minibiographies, and a user's manual on how a generation of social reformers can turn peril into progress with fresh, workable ideas. Together, these narratives of advocacy provide a stunning precedent of progressive action and show how citizen-activists can engage the problems of the age in imaginative ways. While offering useful models to encourage the nation in a newly progressive direction, Civic Passions reminds us that one determined individual can make a difference.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A passion for the progressives . . . Cecelia Tichi's new book dramatizes a chapter in America's history.—The Chronicle of Higher Education

Publishers Weekly
Social historian Tichi makes the case that there are widespread parallels between the excesses and inequities of the country's first Gilded Age over a century ago and the lopsided social and economic landscape of our day. In a lively spur to reform-minded discussion, Tichi offers profiles of seven Victorian-era reformers—including an industrial health advocate (Alice Hamilton), antilynching crusader (Ida B. Wells-Barnett), consumer advocate (Florence Kelley), jurist (Louis Brandeis) and child welfare advocate (Julia Lathrop)—selected for how they typified a generational commitment to “fresh thinking and action.” And their deeds—eloquently channeled here—do resound with renewed import now. Often from the privileged middle classes themselves—Wells-Barnett being a notable exception—these men and women fought tirelessly to better the lives of working people in a country revamped by sprawling corporate might, industrial organization, endemic prejudice and the concomitant intellectual rationales of Social Darwinism. Many lives were saved and improved as a result, though the system arguably remained fundamentally unchanged. Hamilton, at the end of her long and distinguished life—a few months shy of the passage of OSHA—nevertheless pessimistically bemoaned an “instinctive American lawlessness.” (Nov.)

Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Civic passions

By Cecelia Tichi


Copyright © 2009 CECELIA TICHI
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3300-1

Chapter One

Danger and Opportunity An Introduction

Like a time capsule packed with treasures, the Gilded Age opens on a dazzling fashion show of ladies and working girls in their late-1800s upswept hair and ostrich-plumed hats. They parade in colorful, floor-length, puffed-sleeve dresses and promenade arm-in-arm with whiskered gentlemen and dandies wearing swallowtail coats with fashionable creaseless trousers. They socialize, both men and women, at ice cream parlors, pedal bicycles built for two, and shop at the palatial department stores of Messrs. A. T. Stewart and Marshall Field. They sweep into limelighted theaters in the evenings, vacation at the mountain lake or seashore in summer, and visit the wondrous world's fairs in such cities as Chicago, Buffalo, Nashville, and St. Louis. Gilded Age Americans, all the while, enjoy exciting new consumer products that transform daily life. Their time capsule boasts the "mechanical carriage" or motorcar, the telephone, electric lighting, central heat, indoor plumbing, department stores, and the Sears, Roebuck and Company "wish book" of mail-order items from Kodak cameras to sewing machines and prefab bungalows. At the upper end, the Gilded Age capsule glows with Tiffany glass, Beaux-Arts design, palatial homes and furnishings, private railcars, lavish balls, and portraits by John Singer Sargent. Its sound track rings with Victor Herbert's operettas and John Philip Sousa's rousing "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Other Gilded Age sights and sounds, however, are more somber and disturbing. Queen Victoria reigned, but corporate behemoths now ruled America. The kings were the monarchs of steel, beef, oil, and finance, men like Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Their names now became synonymous with big business, its rise more recently dubbed the incorporation of America. Trusts and holding companies signaled the dominant business hyperpower that was supported by legal and judicial maneuvers. "The rise of corporations and trusts inspired both public celebration and fear," says one writer, adding that "corporations were widely viewed as a force powerful enough to erode democracy itself."

Empire, too, stamped its colossal footprint on the period. Not content with global commerce and with coast-to-coast dominance of the North American continent, U.S. political and military leaders underwrote a two-ocean battleship fleet and "expanded American obligations ... in regions far removed from American shores and American interests." At a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, President William McKinley in 1898 took steps to end the Spanish colonial hegemony in Cuba and the Philippines and to project U.S. military and economic power worldwide. On homeland shores, shame trademarks the Gilded Age as well, as historians cite the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as good reason for a rubric of repression and regression. Feminists, for their part, mark the age as the incubation of the independent New Woman and of focused efforts to jumpstart the stalled suffrage movement that denied women the right to vote in national elections until well into the twentieth century.

Behind the stirring Sousa marches and parlor pianos' sweet soulful tunes, the Gilded Age time capsule echoes with wrenching cries. It stirs with the laments of debt-burdened western farmers crushed by years of rock-bottom crop prices and exorbitant railroad shipping rates. It clinks with the meager wages of industrial workers who could not support families on twelve- and fourteen-hour shifts worked seven days a week, many of them immigrant foreigners meeting hostility and violence from the Americans who preceded them in sailing ships that now gave way to steam. It also echoes with the footfalls of the jobless who pounded pavements and pathways in search of employment in the depression years of the 1870s and 1890s. The capsule, what's more, rustles with the greenback payoffs to politicians, and it resounds with the counterpoint of labor strikers' rage and owner-capitalists' counterforce. It crackles with police gunfire and the deadly explosions of anarchists' political rage that might be expressed in Albert Nobel's new invention, dynamite. It thunders with the pronouncements of social Darwinists who assert the "law" of the survival of the fittest. It displays, above all, a polarized America of the super-rich and the terribly poor.

The Gilded Age, however, did not last. Thanks to innovators and their energies, it gradually gave way to a renaissance called the Progressive Era. The mutton sleeves went the way of the silk top hat, just as the stock figure of the corrupt machine politician yielded to the election of good-government mayors and governors. In Cleveland, Ohio, the charming Tom Johnson made a fortune on street railways, then became a passionate agent for the public good. As the city's mayor (1901–9), he worked to create a public transit system with affordable fares, and he wrested city government from "privileged" interests and professionalized Cleveland's government to equip the city for the new twentieth century. Westward, the "Wisconsin Idea" became synonymous with Governor Robert La Follette, who served from 1901 to 1906 and fought successfully for equitable taxation, the conservation of natural resources, the direct election of U.S. senators, and the creation of nonpolitical commissions to study hard problems affecting the public good and to propose solutions. As governor, "Fighting Bob" La Follette also championed "the rights of workers, women, and minorities."

The Gilded Age was followed, that is, by an era whose driving ideas and activism moved Americans toward very different ways of life and outlooks in the United States. The change was not easily accomplished. As ever, entrenched interests and beliefs were powerful. The new outlook required, first, exposing the darker conditions beneath the gold-plate glitter. An exit out of the sordid, baleful conditions required that the Gilded Age be revealed for what it was—a thin plating that hid a host of dangerous social problems that afflicted the middle and working classes and imperiled the country. Beyond exposé, the new innovators unrolled their practical blueprints for a better future, but blueprints are only plans, not structures. These architects of social change worked tirelessly to persuade others that their plans were workable for the nation as a whole and must be implemented. Over a period of years and decades, their effort paid off.

Not that America became a utopia. Social progress is always relative and contingent. Not all groups or individuals benefit equally, and the makeup of society is ever fluid and dynamic. Fear of change is itself powerful, and regression ever a possibility. The Progressives' blind spots have been widely acknowledged. With few exceptions, white Progressives did not sufficiently incorporate African and Asian Americans in their goal of expansive citizenship. Some have seen Progressives as meddlesome, others as naive and nostalgic for a preindustrial world. Still others have criticized them for overlooking the serious class divisions in American society and have questioned who, exactly, belonged on the Progressives' membership rolls and what sort of organization they constituted and commanded.

To be sure, the Progressive agenda did not curb Americans' enthusiasm for the good life of material pleasures, free choice, and geographic mobility from the late nineteenth century and into the 1910s and beyond. The zest for consumer goods and homeownership continued, as did the growth of industrial production, the restless move westward and into cities, the pleasures of leisure activities, and the general enthusiasm for the mechanization that now defined modern life.

Yet bold, unprecedented ideas about civic life steadily took hold at the local, state, and national levels under the guidance of these Progressives, whose agenda centered on quality-of-life issues. They proposed new approaches to childhood, work, health, safety, and security. They pushed for honest and imaginative political leadership, for workplace safety, for municipal services to provide water, electricity, and sewage treatment to the public at affordable prices. They urged protections for children and consumer rights to healthful food, beverages, and medicines. Their efforts gradually moved these and numerous other issues to the forefront of citizens' attention and action. One writer calls this process "reinventing 'the people.'" Thanks to the renaissance of the Progressives, civic concern focused on a range of issues from street sanitation to playgrounds. Over time, the wealth of the new ideas became transformative, and millions of Americans endorsed social change under a broad banner of modern reform.

Progressivism was launched when certain younger individuals and groups began to see personal and social life through a new and different lens. They did not see stock dividends in the smokestack vapors of industrial cities like Buffalo and Cleveland or the cotton dust air of southern mills. They did not calculate fortunes through the blue haze of Havana cigars alight in the gentlemen's clubs and boardrooms of banks and political capitals' inner sanctums. Although Gilded Age urban recreation included sightseeing tours of the working-class slums, these particular individuals did not consider the slum dwellers to be an exotic spectacle staged solely for visitors' amusement. Instead, they saw the slums as a challenge for better living conditions for families trapped in squalid hovels. Middle and upper middle class themselves, they were taught about deplorable conditions by such outspoken working-class activists as Abraham Bisno and Mary Kenney, and they listened carefully and made plans for reform. They saw a future of full-fledged citizenship for the native-born and foreign workers who toiled in New York's sweatshops, just as the counterparts of these workers toiled in the steel mills and coke ovens of Pittsburgh, in the coalfields of West Virginia, in the copper mines of Butte, Montana. They rejected the idea that workers were mere machines to be replaced whenever broken or worn out.

The men and women in this era—in this story—developed a different vision for their times and for the future. Few of their names became bywords of the era, as did those of John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Alva Edison, the prohibitionist Carrie Nation, and the actress Ethel Barrymore. They were known and admired, rather, in medical, religious, political, legal, and cultural circles. Raised in the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, and upstate New York, they spent time in cities and formed a loose confederation of the urban and urbane.

Some of the individuals profiled here knew and worked with one another. The three white women—Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley—were the core of Jane Addams's Hull House brain trust in Chicago, and they kept in touch throughout careers that demanded extensive travel in the United States and abroad. They continued to correspond and confer with one another when Hamilton became the first woman professor on the faculty of Harvard University, when Lathrop served as the first chief of the newly formed U.S. Children's Bureau in Washington, D.C., when Kelley became general secretary of the National Consumers' League in New York City.

The Progressive men were their colleagues. From New York, Kelley approached the Boston-based public service–minded attorney Louis D. Brandeis for help in a labor rights case in Oregon. Their meeting resulted in the landmark Brandeis brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Their economist colleague, John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin, came into their orbit in his research projects in the New York sweatshops, the Chicago packinghouses, and on factory investigation commissions. Though they never met, the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch probably made Commons's acquaintance through the economist's book, Social Reform and the Church. Regrettably, Rauschenbusch never met the antilynching journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, although she lectured in his home city of Rochester, New York, where she conferred with the city's famous feminist, Susan B. Anthony, on woman suffrage. Wells-Barnett did work with Jane Addams at Hull House on issues of race and public schools, and Kelley may have known of her work in black civic organizations. Both Wells-Barnett and Kelley were active members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In all, these individuals were kindred spirits who worked within specific fields of expertise to advance the social, spiritual, material, and physical health of the whole nation. They based their work on solid facts. In 1892, Clarence Darrow declared that the public had lost its appetite for "fairies and angels" and now craved "flesh and blood." Said Darrow, "The world ... to-day asks for facts." "Ugly facts," the muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker called them, while the novelist Upton Sinclair boasted that The Jungle was "packed with facts." The new, late-nineteenth-century science of statistics claimed that factual data gained by mathematical precision could achieve precise social analysis. The Progressives demanded, sought, and generated research-based facts in medicine, law, labor, economics, sociology, and criminal justice. Their different fields of endeavor converged to set new terms of civic action and the social order. They became guides, leaders—in fact, Archimedean figures—who moved the United States of America forward inch by inch in what they knew to be positive directions.

These Progressives were not cultists or dropouts from modern America. They traveled in George Pullman's palace and parlor cars, enjoyed beefsteak shipped in Gustavus Swift's refrigerated railcars, and socialized by the light of Tivoli crystal fixtures. They exercised—both men and women—on the new Pope and Monarch bicycles and sat in cushioned seats with "Turkish" fringe as often as on lightweight, portable,Vienna bentwood chairs. Customary for Americans of their comfortable class, they accepted the daily presence of domestic servants—laundresses, cooks, yardmen—as the natural order of things.

In pivotal ways, however, they challenged the social arrangements that seemed to them blatantly unnatural, especially in an era of modern "civilization." The United States was physically metamorphosing as family farms gave way to factories, and villages and towns mushroomed overnight into cities. A shape-shifting nation required new approaches to culture and society. Gilded Age thought and action, these individuals realized, were now dangerously dysfunctional.

To promote a new outlook at the approach of the twentieth century, the young reformers undertook public education on social conditions, rights, and responsibilities in a nation that was demographically identified by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Aware that the values of the republic rested largely in the nation's middle classes, they worked to school a broad swath of these middle classes. They knew that the reshaping of America required a reshaping of its public consciousness. They also understood that modern media—advertisements, public relations campaigns, motion pictures, the wireless that became known as radio—were important tools for their work, along with relentless grassroots organizing.

Their efforts, moreover, gave a distinct name—a new brand—to U.S. culture and society in the upcoming twentieth century: the Progressive Era. A full roster of Progressives' names would fill an encyclopedia. This book profiles a select few who typify the Progressives' fresh thinking and action. It includes women and men from varied regions of the country, differing educational backgrounds and temperaments, and a range of racial and ethnic identities. The careers of the four women and three men featured here moved in tandem with the abiding presence of Chicago's Jane Addams of Hull House, as well as the reform-minded presidential paterfamilias, Theodore Roosevelt. Profiles in courage, their lives and work were crucially important for the nation back then, just as they are instructive for the socially and economically troubled second Gilded Age.


Excerpted from Civic passions by Cecelia Tichi Copyright © 2009 by CECELIA TICHI. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
A fervent, illuminating account of a moment when the United States became a more democratic and humane society. Against conventional wisdom and the opposition of a political and business regime serving only the comfortable and powerful, the activists in Tichi's story changed Americans' minds about social justice and their mutual obligations. It is a stirring tale, perceptively and passionately told, and one we need to remember in this contemporary moment with its striking similarities to the Gilded Age.—Charles McGovern, College of William and Mary

Meet the Author

Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is author or editor of eleven books, including Exposes and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000, and was awarded the 2009 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >